WASHINGTON - CEOs at some of the nation's leading tech companies see boundless potential for big data and smarter, integrated systems to address major social challenges in areas ranging from medicine to education to transportation - but at the same time, they worry that policymakers at home and abroad could stand in the way of that vision.
Top executives at firms such as Dell, IBM and Xerox gathered in the nation's capital this week under the auspices of the Technology CEO Council, bringing with them a message that the data economy is imperiled by concerns about security and privacy and protectionist policies that could limit the growth of cloud computing and balkanize the Internet.
"The biggest barriers I think that we see are not around the engineering. It's around regulation. It's around protectionism. It's around trust, or lack thereof. It's around policies and procedures," says Xerox Chairman and CEO Ursula Burns, who also chairs the CEO council.
"One of the biggest concerns that we have, and one of the reasons why we come together as a group, is to make sure that we can keep the playing field open to advancement, open to the possibilities of this new economy, and not close it off," Burns adds.
Big Data Potential Needs Free Flow of Information
In addressing the data economy, Burns and other CEOs on the council are offering policymakers a mixed message. On the one hand, gleaning meaningful insights from expansive data sets can have a transformative impact on industries such as healthcare that have been slow to adopt new technologies.
For instance, Dell, one of many tech giants building health IT businesses, maintains an archive of some 7 billion medical images, aggregated in a data set that can be mined for patterns and predictive analytics.
"There's lots that can be done with this data that was very, very siloed in the past," says company Chairman and CEO Michael Dell. "We're really just kind of scratching the surface."
On the other hand, the essential promise of the data economy that Dell and others envision relies on the free flow of information across distributed systems - and a foundation of trust that will give users the confidence to share their data with service providers.
Tech leaders see threats on both fronts.
"What could happen," Burns warns, "is that governments around the world figure out a way to restrict data and data portability and data usage and data movement in such a way that actually limits the full potential of this new economy."
Protectionism Restricts Data Flow, Hurts U.S. Cloud Providers
Many U.S. cloud firms warn against protectionist policies under consideration in foreign markets, particularly in Western Europe, which favor local service providers with requirements for local hosting or storage, or place restrictions on cross-border data flows.
In response, tech leaders lobby against those proposals overseas and seek to promote safeguards for cross-border data flows in U.S. trade policy.
"Countries that take a protectionist view and say, 'I'm going to protect my data and make sure that it's secure for my own economic purposes or political purposes,' or for whatever reason, really run the significant risk of cutting themselves off from this bounty that comes with the data economy," says D. Mark Durcan, CEO of Micron Technology.
Foreign cloud protectionist policies, which arose in part due to concerns over the access to digital records afforded to the U.S. government through the Patriot Act, have only mounted in the wake of the revelations about intelligence-gathering programs brought to light by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The Snowden disclosures have also prompted calls from some world leaders for a more global approach to Internet oversight that would shift power away from the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Tech Doesn't Want U.N. Responsible for Internet Governance
But another Internet governance issue has tech leaders - and many members of Congress - more concerned about the future of the data economy and online freedom of expression. They point to countries with checkered records on Internet freedom, such as China and Russia, and see the potential for the fragmentation of the Internet - a symptom of states creating top-down communications systems that curtail online freedom and limit access to the global Web.
Those policies, supported by efforts to shift more Internet governance responsibilities to the United Nations, could pose a greater threat to the data economy and online freedom than any of the protectionist initiatives being advanced by countries with otherwise liberal Internet policies.
"It would not be good for anyone in the world," says IBM President and CEO Virginia Rometty. "That's not just a U.S. statement."
Read more about regulation in CIO's Regulation Drilldown.